Detective James Gordon tears apart Gotham to answer one question: Who killed Bruce Wayne's parents?

By Darren Orf
Updated September 23, 2014 at 01:01 AM EDT
Credit: Jessica Miglio/Fox
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Crime Alley, that dark and desolate place scorched into Batman’s memory. Two shots blam, blam. The cascading pearls ripped from a dying mother’s necklace. A hidden face behind a smoking barrel. The death of innocence and the birth of a legend. Welcome to Gotham.

Series creator Bruno Heller (The Mentalist, Rome) wastes no time introducing his audience to the murderous underworld of Batman’s city, but this isn’t the time of the Dark Knight. Not yet. Instead Gotham is a series-long preamble to the superhero story we all know. This is an era where gangsters and thugs are known as “businessmen” and “associates,” where the line between cop and crook is just a matter of perspective, and where James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), a young fresh-faced detective, tries to make a difference in a city with a regular appetite for corruption and violence.

It’s in this kind of city where Gordon and the recently orphaned Bruce Wayne meet. As it plays out, the series’ opening scene isn’t very remarkable at first. Gordon’s rough-edged veteran partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), laments the amount of pressure unknowingly inherited from such a high-profile double homicide. As his grumblings recede, Gordon approaches Bruce to offer solace. He shares his own past, the death of his own father, as a way to establish some middle ground. Up to this point, the lighting, the acting, the pacing, and the writing is all too familiar with something you’d see on Law & Order or any version of NCIS or CSI. Seriously, take your pick.

But unlike those series, these characters have an unspoken history—decades of it—and in this scene Heller uses nuanced language to raise Gotham above being a typical cop/crime drama. As police poke and prod at his parents’ corpses, Bruce hates himself for feeling helpless. Then Jim speaks: “There was nothing you could have done to stop what happened, but there is something you can do now. You can be strong. Be strong.”

Those words hang in the air. You can feel their weight and what they mean for Bruce’s future. The eventual arrival of Alfred Pennyworth breaks up the conversation and Bruce disappears among a gathering crowd.

The scene shows exactly what Gotham is and what it isn’t. Hollywood is obsessed with superheroes. Film caught the spandex bug more than six years ago as Marvel fired up its film ambitions with the premiere of Iron Man. Now, television has caught the infection. Live-action superhero shows have always had a place on our TV sets, there’s just never been this many. This fall you can watch Arrow, The Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Constantine, and of course, Gotham, and each one is vying for your weekly viewing allegiance.

Luckily, they all offer something different. The CW delivers your traditional super-powered fix with a side of eye candy, S.H.I.E.L.D. acts as the narrative glue among Marvel’s blockbuster films, and Constantine is all tied up in the occult.

Gotham is none of those things. Yes, it’s filled with familiar characters and locations intimately tied with one of DC’s finest, but this opening scene makes a statement. This is Jim Gordon’s story. The time for superheroes is coming, but as Bruce disappears into the crowd, we know it’s not now.

NEXT: A different kind of crime-fighting duo

With Batman’s origin story set in motion, Gordon and Bullock must now find the Waynes’ killer. A majority of the pilot feels eerily similar to Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day or any other good cop/bad cop cultural reference you can think of. Bullock knows what it takes to be a cop in Gotham City. He’s the grizzled vet. The jaded lawman. The man who’s “seen some things.” He swigs booze in his black coffee, blows off protocol, and often collaborates with crime instead of fighting it. From a certain point of view, you could consider him a realist and from another, a criminal. But it’s this precise duality partnered with Logue’s amazing grasp on the character, that makes Bullock so fun to watch—even if you’re not 100 percent certain of his intentions.

Gordon is a perfect foil. For one, he’s a war hero with all the discipline and sense of duty that comes with it. He’s an idealist, seeing things as he hopes them to be, but not as they actually are. For Gordon, there’s only black and white, but Bullock sees many, many shades in between.

For now, they play their predictable roles. The duo scours Gotham’s back alleys and slums, working over anyone who might be able to identify the Waynes’ killer. From here, Gotham indulges in mountains of dramatic irony and fan service. At a diner, we bump into Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen, part of the GCPD’s Major Crimes Unit, and regular characters appearing in DC comics. Edward Nigma, better known as The Riddler, works on the police force as a forensics expert, and finally we meet Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. The Penguin, working as a right-hand lackey to the smoldering crime boss Fish Mooney, a character invented for the TV series, played by Jada Pinkett Smith.

All of these introductions will surely siphon grins from dedicated fans, but they still come off clunky. For instance, when meeting Nigma for the first time, Bullock interrupts him mid-sentence saying “We don’t have time for riddles.” The same goes for Cobblepot as Mooney’s henchmen tease him with a cruel nickname, “The Penguin.” These scenes come across with as much subtlety as a wrecking ball and are opposite to how Heller handled the opening scene. For first introductions, a bit of winking references to the audience is fine, maybe even expected. But if every interaction with Nigma, Cobblepot, or even Selina Kyle (Catwoman) for that matter must shoehorn in halfhearted references to these characters’ future villainy, then Gotham will devolve into Joel Schumacher hokeyness. No one wants that.

Among these villainous introductions and streetside beatings, Heller also introduces one, if not the only, romantic entanglement on the show, and it’s also one of the pilot’s weaknesses. Gordon’s fianceé Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) feels like a walking cliché. In the pilot, her existence seems too reliant on Gordon. Both times they’re together, they only talk about Jim’s case, and when we do see a little bit of intrigue after a visit from Montoya, it eventually circles back to Jim. The only other time we see her is when Jim doesn’t come home one evening and she shows up at the police station looking for answers. Maybe future episodes will develop a more dynamic Barbara and not just as a Jim Gordon love interest, but right now she’s static and one-dimensional.

NEXT: Nice guys finish last

In familiar crime drama fashion, Gotham moves to the second act—full of lies, deception, and double-crosses. Bullock and Gordon visit a potential suspect, Mario Pepper, who quickly turns hostile. After a brief rooftop chase scene and an exchange of punches, Bullock pulls the trigger on Pepper to save Gordon. After finding evidence linking the suspect to the murders, Bullock and Gordon are celebrated as hero cops by the department and the city. The Waynes are buried. Bruce extends his thanks with a cold handshake. Case closed.

Yeah, not so much. Meeting with Montoya and Allen, Cobblepot aims to oust his boss by detailing a plan hatched between Bullock and Mooney to pin the murder on the now deceased victim. After Gordon learns of the scheme and confronts Bullock, he warns him to just “let this one go.”

Despite his partner’s warnings, Gordon continues poking around until he draws the ire of Mooney and ends up suspended upside down on a meat hook. And as TV and cinema history has shown us, being suspended upside down on a meat hook is not somewhere you want to be. Carmine Falcone, head of the illustrious Falcone crime family, arrives at the last second, offering both Gordon and Bullock a stay of execution and sending a warning to Mooney to know her place.

What’s great about this scene, and the subsequent conversation that follows, is that it perverts the stereotypical superhero narrative. Usually superheroes are the ones to arrive when all hope is lost to save the day, not shotgun wielding criminals. Falcone explains Pepper’s setup as a sacrifice to satiate Gotham City’s need for justice. When Falcone speaks to Gordon about this necessary evil, you can sense that Gordon is beginning to understand what it means to be a Gotham detective.

Carmine Falcone: I’m a businessman. You can’t have organized crime without law and order. I love this city, and I see it going to hell. But I won’t let it fall apart without a fight.

Gordon: You make a life of crime sound very noble.

Then as a type of macabre baptism into a life of violence and corruption, Gordon is forced by Falcone to tie up all loose ends, meaning putting a bullet in Cobblepot. Instead, Gordon fakes Cobblepot’s death and tosses him off a dock, but the damage is already done. Just as Wayne’s innocence was shattered in the episode’s opening moments, now Gordon wears a similar shocked expression. He’s lost something, just like Bruce, whether it’s his ideals of justice or altruistic notions of law and order.

As Bullock says during the episodes’ opening act, “Jim, you seem like a nice guy, but this is not a city or a job for nice guys. You understand?” At the time, Gordon curtly says “no,” but after witnessing all of the corruption, murder, sacrifice, lies, collusion, and endless violence, maybe Gordon would answer differently.

When not talking television, Darren Orf is a staff writer at Gizmodo. Follow him on Twitter: @darrenthewalrus

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